Tag Archives: Coventry

Crooning Glory

CROONERS

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 29th March, 2018

 

As the curtain opens, a David Attenborough-type voiceover introduces us to that rare and endangered species, the crooner, inviting us to observe them in their natural habitat, namely being on stage with a band.  The three specimens presented to us look curiously British, in an old school type of way: bowler hats, tweed jackets and so on.  They each sport an elaborate and not-to-mention false moustache.  A dapper trio, indeed.  We meet Charlie (Roman Marek, who has also written and directed the show), Rupert (Phil Barley) who has something of Lord Lucan to him, and Winston (Jim Whitley) who proves to be the most proficient dancer of the troupe.

The premise is the crooners need to find mates in order to perpetuate their vanishing species and this is the trigger for banter-aplenty with the audience.  It’s good-natured ribbing and the humorous exchanges between the musical numbers are saucy rather than vulgar.  The trio exudes oodles of charm and generates an abundance of fun.  Their urbane cheekiness is irresistible.

The set list is rich with standards.  Come Fly With Me, Fly Me To The Moon, On The Street Where You Live – it’s all solid Rat Pack fare, and the three voices blend marvellously.  They each get solo spots: Charlie’s Frank Sinatra is particularly good but I loved Rupert’s tipsy Dean Martin.  Winston’s Sammy Davis Jr gives us a show-stopping Mr Bojangles.

Some of the jokes are even older than the songs but Roman Marek’s Benny Hill naughty-boyishness pulls them off, and he is an accomplished physical comedian.  There are many moments of undiluted delight.  The second half opens with the men in their underwear.  They perform a reverse strip-tease, getting dressed to music, donning the familiar black-tie attire of this kind of affair.

The band is magnificent and tireless: The Mini Big Band, a ten-piece combo of hot brass, cool sax, rocking drums and moody piano, under the musical direction of Chris and Jon Hibbard.  They underscore, accompany and participate in the action, but above all, sound fantastic.

Oh yes, there’s also tap-dancing, the kind of choreography old Brucie was doing right up until the end.

Utterly enjoyable, entertaining and hilarious, Crooners is a joy from start to finish.

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Pip pip! Phil Barley, Roman Marek and Jim Whitley

 

 

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The Bees’ Knees

HONEY

The Albany Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd March, 2018

 

When you behold a patchwork quilt, you see it at first as a whole.  Then you might move on to look closely at individual patches, and then how they relate to their neighbours.  Such is the fabric of Tiffany Hosking’s sweet and rich new play, named for the produce of Anwen’s bees, but quite easily the play could be renamed or subtitled, How To Make A Welsh Quilt.

Bossy Anwen (Vey Straker) focusses on making the quilt, piecing together hexagons (like a honeycomb!) while her husband is away.  She hopes he is doing his job (defusing bombs!) rather than shacking up with another woman.  Her 22-year-old son Caron (Callan Durrant) is autistic.  He watches Happy Feet on repeat and expresses himself through idiosyncratic choreography (by Lizie Gireudeaux); meanwhile Anwen’s tattoo artist sister Celandine (Jemma Lewis) strives to help out, longing to be loved and for a child of her own.  Also in the picture is their half-sister Armes (Jenni Lea Jones) whom Anwen shuns.  Everyone is superb but Lea Jones really plucks at the heartstrings, and Lewis’s sardonic humour has us in stitches, so to speak.  Durrant is a lovely mover, compelling in his silence, but Straker’s Anwen is the heart of the piece.

It’s a beautiful piece, beautifully played by all and the writing is gorgeous.  Hosking also directs, stitching together a range of styles to make a cohesive whole.  For the most part, it’s naturalistic albeit in a stylised setting: three stacks of boxes represent the beehives but these come apart and are reconfigured to suggest furniture and fixtures of different locations: a post office counter, for example, or tables in the pub… Characters address other characters that we don’t see or hear, in one-sided conversations.  Most revealing, the characters will visit the bees to tell them their news and innermost thoughts (it’s a Thing, apparently), in monologues addressed to the audience.  The action in non-linear but we piece together the timeline, the cause and effect of actions and events.  Gentle drama laced with gentle humour becomes something quietly profound and ultimately touching.  Caron discloses to the bees, in the only instance of him saying anything, that the very chemicals responsible for the decline of their kind may be responsible for the surge in autism – the play’s political point, there, but generally it’s about family and community and connections.  It has much to do with tradition but also feels completely fresh and of the now.  I adored it and audiences should swarm to see it.

The play begins and ends with the same scene: Anwen proudly displaying the completed quilt to the bees, wrapping the story in a neat package and making the show as warming as any such blanket.

honey


Full of the Devil

LIVING WITH THE LIGHTS ON

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 1st November, 2017

 

I am welcomed into the temporary, pop-up theatre by writer-performer Mark Lockyer.  He shakes my hand and invites me to get a cup of tea and a hobnob.  This informal, cosy beginning gives nothing away of what is to come.   When the audience is all in and settled, Lockyer begins properly, shedding his genial, corporate trainer demeanour to tell us his story – and it is his story.  What follows is a searing account of his experiences but this is no chummy recollection of theatrical anecdotes.  His time at the Royal Shakespeare Company features, of course, including a manic episode as Mercutio.  But Lockyer is more of a Macbeth, his sanity unravelling before our very eyes.

The storytelling is energised, volatile even.  The incidents related are increasingly chaotic and destructive.  When he tells us he has met the Devil, we believe him although SURELY it must be a metaphor for something-or-other.  We are not sure…

Tapping into a long-held cultural tradition of using devils and demons as personifications of mental illness, Lockyer weaves a searing tale of calamity.  In a blistering performance, he gives us a tour of his personal hell.  It’s gripping stuff, sometimes shocking, often funny, always compelling.  Director Ramin Gray keeps Lockyer on the move, making sure the range of characters that populate the story are clearly differentiated, and the tone of the piece forever changing.  There is light and dark here, humour and tension.

More than a showcase for his skills, more even than a confessional, this autobiographical show is a clarion call for more talk about mental health and better provision of services.  The lack of beds in psychiatric wards is a running motif in Lockyer’s story.  Importantly, he shows us that even the lowest point is not the end; you can come back from it, you can learn to live with manic depression, rampant paranoia and so on.  You can live with the lights on.

Lockyer has beaten his demon into submission.  Others can too.  The importance of bringing issues of mental health into the open is more than a hot topic.  For many, it is a matter of life and death.

This important show from the Actors Touring Company deserves a much wider audience.  Cancel your plans and head to Warwick Arts Centre.  Living With The Lights On is playing there for the rest of this week.  It’s a blistering piece of theatre with something crucial to say.

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Back out in the Outback

PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

 

Three Spires and Guildhall take a bold stab at the colourful musical, based on the joyous Australian comedy film starring Terence Stamp and Guy Pearce.  It’s an ambitious task for any company, with demands on all aspects of production and, for the most part, this one pulls it off with exuberance.

Craig Garner is positively luminous as Tick, a drag artist summoned from Sydney to Alice Springs by his ex to perform at her hotel.  Somewhat statuesque when in drag, Garner’s vocals, complete with Aussie twang, are excellent throughout.  Tick recruits Bernadette, an ageing transsexual (Steve Smith) and Adam (Doug Gilbey-Smith) and the trio rehearse their act as they travel through the outback on the eponymous bus.  Smith has Bernadette’s deadpan put-downs down to a tee but sound problems mean some of his killer one-liners are lost in the mix, while Gilbey-Smith proves himself a lovely mover.  They’re a likeable bunch and our sympathies are immediately with them – when the spectre of homophobia raises its ugly head, the fly in their jar of slap, it is very clear whose side we are on.  There are no grey areas in this rainbow-coloured story.  And quite right, too!

Jamie Sheeran, the director no less, appears as a kind of Tina Turner/Grizzly Adams mash-up as club host Miss Understanding – you have to admire him not only for his performance but for being prepared to do what he expects of his company.  The male members of his chorus may all sport dad bods rather than being shaped like anything you might see at G.A.Y. but they give it their all!

Karen Staton is hilariously grotesque as Shirley, as is Sue Biddle’s Cynthia, a kind of ping-pong champion, shall we say?  But before you worry that the show might be misogynistic, there is also Kate Temple-Brown’s Marion, Tick’s ex – pleasant, reasonable and fun.  What is held up for ridicule is homophobia, and ridicule is a powerful weapon.   The show also touches on issues of gay parenting – it turns out Tick’s estranged little boy Benji is more at ease with it than he is himself; Malachi Griggs-Taylor joins Craig Garner on stage for the show’s most touching moment.

Vocal support comes from the Divas (Kayleigh Brook, Kelsey Checklin & Claire Tyler) suspended over the action and belting out the numbers for the others to lip-synch.  As you’d expect, the costumes are many and varied and delightful, based on the original Oscar-winning designs.  You can’t do Priscilla without the iconic flipflop frock!  Julie Bedlow-Howard’s choreography is lively and interesting, combining disco moves with more musical theatre manoeuvres.

There are problems with mics and some lighting cues going astray, but this is the first night at the venue so I expect these will be ironed out.  A couple of moments don’t quite work: getting people from the audience for a hoe-down doesn’t quite come off, and bits of action, like Bernadette fainting at first sight of Tick’s son, need tweaking for greater impact.  On the whole, though, this is a hugely enjoyable evening, delivered with enthusiasm and talent, a feel-good, energetic performance of a life-affirming tale that, in these days of the DUP lurking in the wings of Westminster, makes a bold and proud affirmation that gays are human too.

priscilla


Run, Florist, Run!

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 26th October, 2016

 

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic musical crops up like a hardy perennial and it’s always worth a revisit.  Ashman’s lyrics are clever and witty, while Menken’s score is bursting with energetic, catchy tunes.  It’s a combination that proves irresistible and this touring production from Sell A Door Theatre Company serves the material superbly.

Sam Lupton gives a star turn as nerdy flower shop assistant Seymour whose botanical tinkering leads to a Faustian pact with a mean, green mother from outer space.  Lupton is in excellent voice and makes us care about his Seymour.  Stephanie Clift is sweet as bubbly shop girl Audrey, a damsel in distress who can also belt out a number.  Her ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ is a highlight, as is her duet with Lupton, ‘Suddenly, Seymour’.  Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello shows TV talent show star Rhydian can also act – he seems to be having a lot of fun and, of course, he gets to show off his impressive vocal stylings.  He gives a highly charged performance – he’s a gas! Paul Kissaun entertains as the kvetching shop owner Mr Mushnik – there’s more than a hint of Reb Tevye here! – while Neil Nicholas gives carnivorous plant Audrey II a deliciously dark chocolate soulful sound.  The plant is a sinister, looming presence, a reckoning that has to be faced.

Sasha Latoya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare form a formidable trio, acting as a kind of Greek chorus to the action and keeping the 60s soul groove going.  Musical director Dustin Conrad and the band are the heart driving the show, pumping energy from start to finish.

Director Tara Louis Wilkinson gives us fun with moments of comic horror – the gore is hinted at rather than depicted.  David Shields’s design adds to the heightened, cartoony feel of the piece but I find some of the lighting cues need to be tighter – this was the show’s first night in this venue so I’ll let them off!

The show has currency in today’s world of fears of genetically modified plants that could devastate life as we know it.  Above all, though, this is enormous fun delivered by a company that is a cut (or should that be ‘cutting’?) above the rest.

Blooming great.

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Sam Lupton and Stephanie Clift decide to seymour of each other (Photo: Matt Martin)


Dim and Dimmer

THE GLASS MENAGERIE

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 10th November, 2015

 

Headlong’s production of Tennessee Williams’s 1940s play curiously sheds light by keeping us in the dark. It’s very dimly lit – we are warned it will be by Tom (Tom Mothersdale) in his prologue. He tells us we are about to see a ‘memory play’ as if that’s a genre, and he narrates – Williams’s language has a languid poetry to it that shines through the gloom. At first I find the darkness problematic; it’s as though Tom’s memory involves deterioration of vision. The cast is almost lost in Fly Davis’s black box of a set. It’s like they’re in a basement during a blackout. And yet powerful performances emerge. Greta Scacchi dominates as overbearing mother, Amanda, with her flights of nostalgia and old-fashioned manners. Amanda enlists Tom to bring home a gentleman caller for his sister – her only hope is to marry her off. Scacchi is the engine that drives the performance, keeping us hooked in while the design and production choices keep us at a remove. Distortions of sound by Gareth Fry along with bursts of popular music of the time link the scenes with mood as much as Tom’s narration.

There are striking moments when the director’s choices work brilliantly and brutally: the blocking is stylised in contrast with the naturalistic delivery of the dialogue, providing visual metaphors (when you can see them!) and colouring Tom’s recollections of these events. It was obviously a dark time for him! The moment when they say grace before dinner is an example where this expressionistic staging illuminates the inner life of the characters.

Tom Mothersdale has a nice line in sarcasm – it’s never stated overtly but Tom’s secret life, what keeps him out until the wee small hours, is hinted at (a typical feature of Williams’s work). As club-footed Laura, Erin Doherty brings out the girl’s emotional immaturity – Laura is hampered by more than physical disability, she has social anxieties too; and as the gentleman caller Jim, Eric Kofi Abrefa is like a breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic setting. Odd though that Tom can recall in such detail scenes in which he doesn’t appear, but hey ho…

The second act packs the emotional punch. Director Ellen McDougall carries off the denouement with aplomb – her unconventional way of presenting Tennessee Williams pays off by the end. It may not be easy on the eye, peering into the murk, but there is a blinding flash of realisation and, literally, a shattering moment. Sometimes despite and sometimes because of the conceptual presentation, the emotional truth of the piece remains intact, even if the glass animals do not. Our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and egos are as fragile and brittle as Laura’s vitreous zoo.

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Greta Scacchi shines as Amanda (Photo: Tristram Kenton)


Playing by the Rules

HOKE’S BLUFF

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Thursday 4th December, 2014

 

We have all seen them, those sports-themed movies.  They’re all the same.  Individuals fighting against the odds to win the climactic championship, proving their worth as a team player.  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Here, duo Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse (working collectively as Action Hero) re-enact version of key scenes from this genre, exposing not  only the clichéd nature of the stories but also a shallowness to the culture and, at the heart of that culture, the engine that drives it all, perpetuating the myth of the American Dream.  Work hard and you will reach the top. Millions of Americans swallow and repeat this lie, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The two actors portray all the characters: the team members, the cheerleading squad, the tough-talking coach, the commentators and even the furry mascot.  This small-town high school team is the Wildcats; we have all been given pennants to wave – but the sport they play is never pinned down.  The story covers all all-American sports simultaneously and interchangeably.

The stroke of genius is the cast retaining their English accents.  The dispassionate, deadpan delivery gives the lie to the passionate pep talks and just how goddamn important everything is.  It leads to some hilarious moments.  The Coach comes across like an office manager in a staff briefing, for example.  There is the added bonus that we, as a British audience, are too reserved.  We can’t throw ourselves into the whooping and cheering to which our American cousins are prone at the drop of a sports reference.

The absurdity of regarding sport as anything other than entertainment is laid bare.  But the play hints at more than this.  As a culture, we are becoming increasingly Americanised.  And it doesn’t suit us.  It makes for a shallower society where the pressure to conform is almost irresistible.  The play shows us the American way is a poor fit for us Brits.  We should oppose this cultural imperialism (and, while I’m on this soapbox, shun such American things as privatised healthcare, for instance).

All that said, this is a hugely entertaining 80 minutes.  There’s even a training montage performed by a seemingly indefatigable James Stenhouse as “Tyler”, while cheerleader Connie begins to have doubts and questions, resisting the expectations imposed on her gender.  Of course, they end up playing the game, playing by the rules, and are ultimately victorious – before the high school dream machine spits them out into their unremarkable and mundane adult lives.

It’s energetically performed; the pace never lets up, and there is almost ceaseless loud music to get our hearts pumping.  Go, Wildcats!

The two are joined by Laura Dannequin as a referee in a black-and-white striped shirt.  She blows her whistle between scenes and makes arcane pronouncements in impenetrable sports lingo.  Inscrutable and implacable, the referee enforces the rules and imposes penalties with the arbitrary nature of fate and the unknowability of God.

Unusual, very funny and acerbic, Hoke’s Bluff is joyously subversive.  I waved my pennant enthusiastically – until my arm began to feel a bit tired.

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)

Go Wildcats (Photo: Ludovico Des Cognets)